The cover art is evocative and perfectly fitting. Micah Visser, the Winnipeg-bred singer-songwriter known as Boniface (who uses they/them pronouns), leans against a Pontiac Fiero, their smartly cut suit and fashionably shorn hair seemingly at odds with the desolate dirt road behind them. Meanwhile, the word “Boniface” is emblazoned across the top in bold red cursive. In many ways, this meticulously crafted debut album harks back to the 1980s, particularly in terms of the spotless keyboards and occasionally relentless dance beats. But the lyrical content is cathartic, timeless, and deeply personal.
With this album, Visser has created what can easily be defined as a concept album, with song lyrics almost like diary entries. There’s pain, there’s heartbreak, and there’s also a sense of soul-searching and growth. Visser describes the album as “a collection of stories about coming of age in a small town. An intimate series of vignettes from my your that only came to be through collaboration with a handful of the kindest, most talented people I’ve ever met.”
Recorded between Winnipeg and London by Visser and producer Neil Comber (Charli XCX, Glass Animals, M.I.A.), the songs run the gamut from soulful piano ballads to dancefloor thumpers and everything in between. Despite the sometimes sweeping, epic musical arrangements, Visser is determined to keep the subject matter grounded. The theme of breaking out of the small-town life – despite the friends they would leave behind – is a recurring one. In the breathless stomper “Dear Megan”, Visser apologizes to the titular character, and sings “I know I’m always saying that, but this time I mean it / I’m leaving for Los Angeles today.” They include plenty of precious details: “I remember your hallway / The way the tile chipped and the way that you held me.”
In the single “Keeping Up”, Visser embraces the friendships that keep him going. “How can I help you when we’re running from the same damn thing?” they sing. “Or keep your head above the water when my stomach sinks?” For Visser, they’re all in it together, and the “ride or die” attitude is refreshing, honest, and shows a vulnerability lacking in a lot of modern pop music. In “Oh My God”, the musical approach is a bit more low-key (despite the chorus, which is typically soaring), with the deadpan vocal falling somewhere between Lou Reed and Ian McCullough while maintaining the theme of friendship and honestly conveying one’s feelings. “Oh my god / You’re the watch that fell off someone else’s wrist,” they sing. “You’re the film nobody saw / They like it now, the hypocrites.”
The music maintains a gleaming pop sensibility but charges hard and rocks mightily when necessary. “Wake Me Back Up” employs relentless drumming high in the mix alongside air-guitar-worthy riffs. The slow build-up of “I Will Not Return as a Tourist” is a delirious experience that sounds like Bernard Sumner if he combined the best parts of New Order and Electronic. But for the most part, Visser is happy maintaining the kid of pulsing beats that can fill a dancefloor in seconds flat, but with the caveat that you should also pay attention to the words. Rarely has music this danceable had so many revealing, heart-stopping lyrical moments. “Ain’t it kind of funny how we still don’t like the bed we’re sleeping in or the town where we reside?” Visser sings in “Ghosts.” They continue: “We’re 21, you know / If we wanted it, we would have control.”
As if to drive home the “concept album” theme, Boniface is bookended by two odes to suburban youth. Opening track “Waking Up in Suburbia” is a gentle piano ballad that allows the listener to ease into the album gently. On the closing song, “Making Peace with Suburbia”, Visser seems exhausted from the emotional weight of the 11 previous songs, but he soldiers on with one final episode. “I’m crying on a queen-size bed,” they sing. “You called, but I’d already passed out / I woke up to your text, it was a picture of your breasts / It said ‘I hope you come around.'” Then, almost as an afterthought: “I guess I never did.” Like the first song, it’s framed primarily by piano, giving the song an epic, gospel feel as the tension slowly builds. The home recordings in Winnipeg give the songs a disarming intimacy, but it’s the transporting of the recordings over to London that complete the circuit, creating a deeply personal work that also contains a great deal of musical sophistication.
What Lana Del Rey did last year for the 1970s singer-songwriter genre on Norman Fucking Rockwell, Boniface has managed to do for 1980s pop on this stunning, multifaceted debut album: embrace a genre while effortlessly elevating it.